On Monday, my wife and I will celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary. According to Hallmark.com (the worldwide source of information ‘when you care enough to send the very best’), the gift for this anniversary is pearls. I find it funny how random some of these yearly suggestions are: wood is to be given on year 5; appliances are appropriate for year 18; tools are the traditional gift for year 29. Jeanine and I are non-traditional in this regard, I guess. We tend to mark the years of marriage by enjoying more sentimental gestures, such as thoughtful cards and fancy dinners without the children.
Truth be told, the gifts of a long marriage are not given on anniversaries, but rather every day in between. Jeanine and I have been married for more that half our lives and, it can be reasonably asserted, we are not the same people who stood before a minister three decades ago. We were bright-eyed and optimistic, confident that love conquers all. Over the years, the light in our eyes has dimmed a bit and we are a touch more practical now, but with age comes the certainty that love does indeed conquer all. That certainty, that calm assurance, that we have each other and know each other is, in my opinion, more precious than pearls.
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Proverbs 31:10
I do not thank God as often as I should for Jeanine, this completely different-than-me angel who has blessed my life for more than 35 years. I am so appreciative that she complements my weaknesses with her strengths and accentuates my abilities with her own. She has lovingly challenged me to be a better man, a better husband and a better father. She has willingly, with her typical encouragement, endured my career change and seven moves while raising four wonderful children without complaint. God has given me an equal partner in life who has brought comfort and cleanliness and made our house a home. Again, I do not thank God as often as I should.
As we age and mature, we change. I thank God that Jeanine and I have grown together and not apart. I thank God that we enjoy one another’s company more now than ever, appreciate one another’s voices more now than ever and savor one another’s refinement more now than ever. I could not have imagined the beauty of our union when we first met at a Friendly’s in the early 1980s. And I am not too proud to say that I have gained the most in our marriage (which compels me to strive to appreciate to an even greater degree this precious gift of my wife of noble character).
Finally, I thank God for the demonstration of sacrificial love that Christ provides which serves as a template for my wife’s and my relationship. I thank God that we have committed to do the hard work of willful submission to one another. I thank God for the challenges we have faced and the strength we have found in our bond.
My prayer is that we would all have occasion to celebrate these bonds.
For me and my family, the last 6 weeks have been a lesson in trust. It included answering a Craig’s List ad for an apartment rental, reserving a truck from U-Haul during their busiest weekend of the year, taking one son to freshman orientation 50 miles away and registering another son for Middle school in a new town. At every step along the way I worried that I was just building what amounted to sandcastles as I waited for the tide to come in and wash our plans away. My mind ran through every negative scenario that would leave us without a truck or a roof or an address necessary for school enrollment.
While my thoughts spiraled downward, every single detail relative to all these moving parts of our life had positive outcomes; truth be told, most of the details were actually more favorable than I could have anticipated. The realtor handling our new apartment offered (without provocation) to reduce both his fee and the monthly rent. The representative at U-Haul made available (with little provocation) the truck for an additional 18 hours. The college orientation was so well-structured that David was moved in about 15 minutes after we arrived on campus. The placement exam and enrollment process for Joshua was flawless. At every turn, we found blessing where I was fearing barriers.
The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Genesis 12:1 (NIV)
Looking back over what has transpired over the past few months, I am yet again confronted with my own weaknesses: that I trust God too little and fear uncertainty too much. This is all in direct contradiction to what I have experienced over and over again: God continually allows my feet to fall in favorable places – through the lights and through the shadows – and consistently teaches me that I am wasting too much energy worrying about things I ought not contemplate. God is faithful even when I have little faith. God is trustworthy even if I have trouble trusting anyone but myself.
God is good, whether I know it or not. He knows where we are, He knows where we are going and He knows how He will get us there. He knows our worries and concerns and provides comforts and consolations. My trouble is that I trust what I can see. I am a master of the short game and I think that life is a sprint. If it is right in front of me, I can accept it. But God plays a long game and life is a marathon. There are aspects of my life that I know nothing about (things that are miles down the road and years from materializing) but that are perfectly ordered by our omniscient and almighty God.
I thank the Lord for the lessons I have learned in recent days: that I am woefully inadequate to attend to all the details of life, that God has unfathomable blessings in store for those who obey Him and that I need to trust Him more. O Lord, help my little faith.
As I mentioned in my previous post, we will be moving next weekend. It has been a trying three years at our most-recent residence. There have been sweet and wonderful times (three years of birthdays and Christmases, living under the same roof with a wide variety of pleasant co-renters and celebrating a graduation), but the preponderance of our memories will likely be less than stellar (terrible neighbors, ubiquitous ride-share vehicles blocking the driveway and a year-long aroma of cannabis in the stairways). Within the cookie-cutter walls of the cookie-cutter Dorchester triple-decker we had our fair share of joy and love, despite the near-constant attacks seeking to steal them.
All this is, I suppose, the facts of life. As the ‘80’s television theme song told me each week: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life, the facts of life.” Those who have more cultured tastes may also know the words of a Longfellow poem: “Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall….” Life is a mix of pleasantries and unpleasantries, of dreams and nightmares; our only hope is that the good outweighs the bad and the sun outlasts the clouds.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 2 Corinthians 4:16-17
Paul tells us that our light and momentary troubles (which in the previous sentence is connected to ‘wasting away’) are achieving, or more literally working out, an all-surpassing glory. Paul is saying, in essence, that the difficulties of our earthly existence are preparing us to fully enjoy the abundant life given through Christ. Honestly, this concept frustrates me, mainly because I do not see my troubles as light and/or momentary; I see them as the contrary. Being accosted by neighbors is not a light affliction and being bombarded by the cacophony of weekend partiers is not a momentary problem.
I can only assume that Paul is speaking comparatively and not qualitatively. I can only reason that when we focus on the glorious future the Lord has secured for us, our everyday difficulties will seem insignificant. When I set my eyes on the place that Jesus has prepared for us in His Father’s house, the troubles I have with my earthly dwelling are meager and the troubles I have with my neighbors are fleeting.
I have no idea what we will find in our new habitation, so we may be jumping from the frying pan and into the fire. While I hope that is not the case, for I know that this new house will not be my final home. And while I hope that the good days far outnumber the bad, I know that some trouble will follow me, as if I had boxed them up and drove them to the new address myself. But I also know that they will never be too heavy or too long that I will be overcome, and what awaits me over the horizon, many years from now, will one day outweigh them all.
It all started with a simple exercise during our Sunday School class: write down one thing you think you need but do not have. My sweet and kind-hearted eleven-year-old boy, in tiny letters on his paper wrote two words which broke my heart – ‘less change’. Those in the class quickly offered consolation, telling one another that change is inevitable and can lead to positive things. But for at least one pre-teen, this is all too much: moving to a neighboring town, changing schools, having a life-long roommate go off to college and watching other family members transition to places of their own. It makes me sad that my son, despite the brave face, is hurting.
Yes, we are moving again. For those keeping score, this is the 7th time in our thirty year marriage that we are packing boxes and renting trucks. After 20 years (and 1 month) in Boston, we are moving 2 miles south of the city to Quincy. [As a side note: if you will be in the Boston area on Friday, August 30th, or Saturday, August 31st, we could use some help. Contact me.] For the only time in any of our lives, Jeanine and me included, one of us will be required to change school systems and make new friends and adjust to new paradigms. I am confident that God will order Joshua’s steps and that he will thrive in this new adventure, but I still worry. If you pray, would you pray for Josh?
This move has forced Jeanine and I to make necessary, but personally difficult, decisions. Certainly, we are determining what possessions we are moving, what we are donating and what we are tossing (and for all those Marie Kondo devotees out there, nothing in this process is sparking joy). But there are other decisions that have been made: we decided that our budget could only afford three bedrooms in our new living situation, and so our three oldest children, over the next month or two, are transitioning to college and beyond. In this, too, I am confident that God will guide my family into blessings I cannot yet comprehend.
The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand. Psalm 37:23-24 (ESV)
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the Bible that God uses the process of change to bring about our maturity and development. Abraham was told to move. Mary and Joseph were led to relocate. Peter was commanded to change careers. It should come as no surprise to any of us that God may lead us in similar ways. New jobs, new schools and new homes may cause worry in the strongest of hearts, but when we know it is a part of God’s way we can take delight in knowing that whatever comes, He will uphold us.
For all those who feel that they need ‘less change’, hold out hope in knowing that the Lord will be with you on the other side of whatever change you are experiencing.
At Vacation Bible School earlier this week, one of the lessons was about ‘going beyond with boldness’. As I taught the seven 3rd through 6th graders in my class about courageously trusting in the Lord, about doing and saying what is right even when it is hard, we explored the life and faith of Esther. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Esther, the beautiful Jewish wife of the Persian king Xerxes I, and her cousin Mordecai persuade[d] the king to retract an order for the general annihilation of Jews throughout the empire.” Esther is the supreme example what God can do through a person who demonstrates boldness.
With a twenty-first century worldview, it might escape the awareness of the casual reader of the Old Testament that speaking to your husband about a decree would require extreme boldness. But the author of the book of Esther, in the first chapter, tells us what happens when a queen displeased King Xerxes: during a party with his friends, Queen Vashti was summoned in order to show her beauty; the queen refuses to go; so, the king exiles her from his presence and procures a new wife. If that is what happened to the queen after an informal request, what would happen to Esther when she decries an official proclamation? Yet, she courageously stood up for what was right.
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14
Esther is a role-model for all the spine-deficient among us. After deciding that God, in fact, raised her to the position of queen for just this purpose, she devises a plan and musters the strength to speak of this injustice perpetrated against the people of God. But when she had an audience before the king, she buckles and only invites him to a banquet. She chickens out, reminding us all that even the strongest sometimes shiver before they shine. Then, after two days of drinking, Esther speaks up and secures the safety of her people, boldly proclaiming the truth of God. Despite the real possibility of losing everything – even her life – she courageously stands up for God.
We are not that different from Esther. We see and hear of injustice and wrongdoing every day. We, too, may have come into our position – a place of power and prosperity – for such a time as this. We could speak to the authorities of today and address the issues of today. We could go beyond what we think is possible with boldness. We need modern-day Esthers, those who are apprehensive but aware, and tentative but trusting.
One final word from the lesson plan: the name Esther means ‘star’. Just as there are stars in the night sky that have died centuries ago and their light is still reaching the earth after travelling for thousands of years, so too the examples of ‘stars of the faith’ may have died long ago, but still shine today.
Over the past few days, I have had people tell me where they were on July 20, 1969. They shared what they were doing the moment that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I was told that I watched it on television (truth be told, I was 3½ and cannot remember; but my mother texted me the following message last Saturday: “50 years ago I sat you in front of the TV and said, ‘You may not remember this, but, I want you to be able to say you saw the first man land on the moon.’”) We all have stories of what we were doing during the watershed moments of history.
Some of these moments are global (for a previous generation it might have been D-Day or the falling of the Berlin Wall), some are national (the assassination of JFK or MLK or 9/11) and some are personal (wedding days and birth days). Some moments, like the Apollo 11 moon landing, can be anticipated; others, like attacks of 9/11, are shockingly unexpected. It all makes me realize that sometimes we recognize when our lives (and history) are going to change and sometimes we are caught completely off guard.
However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” – the things God has prepared for those who love him…. 1 Corinthians 2:9
The apostle Paul tells us that the most remarkable events of life (and history) are still to come. These events are impossible to imagine: everything we have seen in the past, however spectacular, is nothing in comparison; anything we have heard in the past, however earth-shattering, is of no significance in retrospect; whatever we might conceive in our minds, however incredible, it is nothing like what God has prepared for His beloved.
Perhaps that is what Jesus had intended us to envision when, teaching His disciples to pray, he said, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ The appearing of God’s kingdom will be more marvelous than the moon landing and the accomplishing of God will will be more incredible than the invention of the light bulb. There will come a day when everything in heaven and on earth will pivot and all the ravages of sin will be eliminated, and there will no longer be death or destruction.
This all leads me to a question: what are you going to do with the single most life-changing moment in history; what are you going to do about the hour of Christ’s crucifixion? What were you doing when you realized that Jesus paid the price for your transgressions and the penalty for your disobedience? Where were you when you witnessed the grace and mercy of God that forgave you of your sin? These other events – wonderful and terrific – are worthy of remembering, but the cross is worthy of deep reverence. That moment at Calvary was truly when everything changed.
Recently, I have been watching a captivating show on Netflix called “Nail’d It!” According to the streaming service’s website, the program is described in this way: “Home bakers with a terrible track record take a crack at re-creating edible masterpieces for a $10,000 prize. It’s part reality contest, part hot mess.” Here is what happens during each 30-minute episode: three amateur home cooks, with limited time, resources and experience try to copy baked goods worthy of Pinterest created by professional bakers with unlimited time, resources and experience. The facsimiles never quite match the originals, but that is what makes the show so delightful. The home bakers work so hard and fail so often, incurring the good-natured ribbing of the diverse panel of judges. Yes, the end-products are woefully awful in comparison, but they are also delightfully ambitious.
This show appeals to be because it turns a particular cultural fascination on its head – capturing perfection through a post on social media. There are millions of selfies that go unposted because of some imperceptible flaw that the sole picture posted does not contain. There are hours devoted to staging furniture and furnishings so that uploaded photos of real estate are displayed in the best light. We rarely expose our sub-par efforts, let alone our failures, to the scrutiny of public opinion. Unless it is perfect, we are left to assume it is without value. Social media has created a cultural expectation of quality where ‘good’ is rarely good enough.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
I think Paul would have a tough time adapting to our culture, replete with social media’s expectations of perfection. When he wrote to Timothy, he encourages him to give his best effort and, therefore, never feel needless shame. He did not say that Timothy should cover the façade of life’s messiness with a veneer of superficial perfection, pretending that he could master every aspect of life and ministry. Perhaps there is a blessing in knowing that we cannot do everything perfectly, but that we can always do our best. Life is not expected to look like a magazine photo-shoot. Life is often troubling to look at and imprecise, and that should be okay.
One of the more redemptive aspects of “Nail’d It!” is that the judges place a value on presentation, but they also value taste. If it doesn’t look pretty but is delicious, the judges may still declare that entry the winner. Mastering the fundamentals of baking counts for something. Mastering the fundamentals of life and living counts, too. This is true when it comes to relationships, service, ministry, faith, communication, compassion and about a million other things. There is something deeply biblical in that. Life does not always look pretty but treating the ingredients of life and living properly will, at worst, make it palatable. Handled properly, it may even be delicious.
The cake with the elevated teapot is not the norm. The photo of the beachside sunset is not typical. The brochure with all the smiling faces is probably not real. But the simple cake, the salt air and the full spectrum of human emotions are what life is composed of…and often times it is delicious.
Last Thursday night, I was captivated by a contest televised on ESPN: the 92nd Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Let me say that I am not an advocate for the cultural predilection toward presenting “participation awards” (the ubiquitous practice of giving everyone on the team a trophy, regardless of the score); both winning and losing has the ability to build character and excellence ought to be recognized. So, as I began watching the ‘evening finals’, beginning with round nine where sixteen children were still competing, I was very-much looking forward to seeing a champion crowned and the other 15 children cheered as they walked off the stage, defeated but undaunted.
The ninth round of words was perfectly executed – all 16 mastered the words they were given. Then, over the next 5 rounds, eight participants misspelled their word and exited the competition. At that point, the remaining eight spellers broke the system, correctly spelling the next 47 words. It was announced at one point that they were running out of words and, after a few more rounds, all those still spelling would win. After a total of 20 rounds, the directors of the bee declared all the remaining contestants the winner of the competition. Rishik Gandhasri, age 13 (who spelled ‘auslaut’), Erin Howard, 14 (‘erysipelas’), Saketh Sundar, 13 (‘bougainvillea’), Shruthika Padhy, 13 (‘aiguillette’), Sohum Sukhatankar, 13 (‘pendeloque’), Abhijay Kodali, 12 (‘palama’) Christopher Serrao, 13 (‘cernuous’) and Rohan Raja, 13 (‘odylic’) all walked away with the $50,000 and the trophy as champions of the National Spelling Bee.
This was not, in any way, a participation award. It was a pronouncement of excellence, as each one perfectly executed the task before them. These eight great spellers finished the competition without error and were declared the winner. The unfolding of this competition reminded me of the words of Paul to the church in Corinth:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24
These young competitors all expected that there would be only one winner and they prepared accordingly. They competed to win the prize and they finished the competition in first place. They won – they all won – together, giving one another High-fives and cheering on one another’s correct (always correct) efforts. The rules of the competition did not change, only the fact that many finished perfectly, together.
In many ways, I saw a glimpse of the heavenly in the very early moments of May 31st. The conclusion of the spelling bee reminded me of the concluding moments of life: we are diligently competing for the prize, surrounded by our fellow competitors, when the director of the race, the Lord Almighty, states that all who cross the finish line first will be declared winner. At that moment, we interlock elbows and all step across the finish line together, all securing the prize. We celebrate one another, realizing that we are not competing against the other runners, but the course itself. All those still standing at the end will receive the prize.
One last word to spell: H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H!
Last Monday, Memorial Day, was the cultural beginning of summer and tomorrow, June 1st, is its start, meteorologically. While I do not consider it summer until the air conditioners are placed in the windows (alas, no central air for us), I realize that it is that time again when we ask one another if we have made our vacation plans yet. For those of us in New England, it is the time we take the ice scrapers out of the car and replace them with beach chairs; it is the time when we begin to enjoy ice cream in cones while on a walk rather than in bowls while watching TV. It is a time for cookouts and campouts.
I hope you have plans for the summer – going to the lake or the mountains, spending time in the nation’s capital or at the in-laws, visiting a newest theme park or watching the latest blockbuster. I hope that these plans for the summer, whether at home or away, includes the worship of the Lord. I hope that your summer plans at your home church and the places you visit while on vacation allow you to offer our whole selves to God in grateful praise.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1
As Paul says to the church in Rome, this offering of ourselves is primarily a sacrificial act intended to glorify God. The imagery he uses is one of an altar, the sacred place of righteous giving. As a way of responding to God’s mercy, we give ourselves – our time, talent and treasure – with gifts that are of varied amounts (some can give an hour or a dollar, while others have more to give) in completely voluntary ways. In light of all the blessings you enjoy because of God’s kindness, could you spend a bit of your summertime resources appreciating Him?
This offering, however, will have consequences. When we agree to offer our bodies, we offer all its parts. This act of generosity effects our talking, for our tongues have been offered. This act of generosity effects our toiling, for our hands have been offered. This act of generosity effects our traveling, for our legs have been offered. There may be plans, on vacation or at home, that will need to be curtailed or delayed because we are offering our resources to Him. The beach and the barbeque will have to wait. It is always better to exercise your faith in flip flops than to forgo the blessing of gathering altogether.
Our rightful response to the blessings God gives us – our vacations and vocations, our purses and our purposes – is to be living sacrifices. We are living sacrifices: continually, in every season and on every day, offering what He has given us to share. We are holy sacrifices: set apart for His purposes. We are pleasing sacrifices: demonstrating what is appropriate for Him. I hope that this attitude is the highlight of your next season.
Last week, a number of people in my family, including me, watched the series finale of “The Big Bang Theory”. It was a fitting conclusion to the show, as we witnessed one of the main characters, Sheldon, uncharacteristically consider others more highly than he considered himself and utilize the spotlight afforded him through professional success to speak words of affirmation and appreciation to his typically disregarded friends. It was an exceptional picture of the concept of community. Those watching the program, 18.5 million in all, including the people in my home, were much less a demonstration of community: while we were all doing the same thing at the same time, we weren’t truly together.
‘Together’ is a word we like to use in the church. We gather together, worship together, pray together, serve together, learn together, and rejoice together. But is this togetherness similar to the relationships portrayed on television or to the relationships displayed in millions of homes on a Thursday night? What does being together, from a biblical standpoint, look like?
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…. Acts 2:44-46
The other night, as part of a Bible study on Acts 2:42-47, we were discussing the word ‘together’. The word is used twice in the passage, but two different Greek words are utilized: ἐπί (epi) is verse 44 and ὁμοθυμαδόν (homothumadon) in verse 46. These two Greek words mean two very different things. ‘epi’ is a preposition meaning ‘with or upon’, used to describe location or geography: in the context of verse 42, the disciples were in the same place or were locationally close. ‘homothumadon’ is an adverb meaning ‘having or sharing in the same strong emotion’ and is used to modify an action emotionally: the disciples were sharing the same passion or were emotionally close.
The togetherness that the church aspires to experience includes both proximity and community. It requires both being in the same place (proximity) and having the same heart (community). We need to be together in the same place: we must see one another and breath the same air as we hear and do the same things; we cannot help one another if we do not know one another and we cannot know one another if we are never with one another. We need to be together in the same spirit: we must embrace the same passionate pursuit – to know Christ and to make Him known – as we practice the disciplines of faith; it is not enough to do things together if we do it individualistically.
Spiritual growth and maturity require both proximity and community. We need to be close geographically and close emotionally. Think about that when you are making your plans for the weekend, and perhaps choosing to get together with others and be together with others at a church in your neighborhood.